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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Learning Context, Part 1, by Craig S. Keener

The figurative setting of Psalm 50 is a courtroom, where God has summoned His people to respond to His charges. He summons heaven and earth as His witnesses (50:1-6)—as witnesses of the covenant (Deut. 32:1; cf. Ps. 50:5), they would be witnesses concerning Israel’s violation of that covenant. Israel has some reason to be nervous; God is not only the offended party in the case, but the Judge (Ps. 50:4, 6). Testifying against them, God declares, “I am your God” (50:7)—reminding them of the covenant He had made with them. They had not broken faith against Him by failing to offer sacrifices (50:8)—in fact, God doesn’t care. “I don’t need your animal sacrifices, for all the animals belong to Me, including the cattle on a thousand hills. I don’t eat animal flesh, but if I did, would I tell you if I were hungry? Since I own these creatures, wouldn’t I just take them if I wanted them?” (50:9-13). The sacrifice which He really requires is thanksgiving and obedience (50:14-15; cf. 50:23). But He would prosecute (50:21) the wicked who broke His covenant (50:16-20).

Most ancient near Eastern peoples believed that their gods depended on them for sacrifices, and if their gods were overpowered, their nation would be overpowered as well. The God of Israel reminds them that He is not like the pagan gods around them. Unlike Baal of the Canaanites (whose temples included a bed), Zeus of the Greeks (whom Hera put to sleep so her Greeks could win a battle), and other deities, the God of Israel neither slumbered nor slept (Ps. 121:3-4). God does not mention the cattle on a thousand hills to promise us anything we want (as a song pointed out some years ago, many of us don’t need any cows at the moment anyway); He mentions the cattle to remind us that He is not dependent on us, and we are not doing Him a favor by serving Him.


5. Baptized with Fire in Matthew 3:11

One modern denomination is the “Fire-Baptized Holiness Church”; many Christians happily claim to be “baptized in the Holy Ghost and fire.” We know and appreciate, of course, what they mean; they mean holiness, and holiness is essential. But is that what John the Baptist means by “fire baptism” in this passage? Fire is sometimes used as a symbol of God’s consuming holiness or of purifying trials in the Bible; but when fire is conjoined with the image of baptism in the New Testament, it has to do not with mere purification of the individual, but with purifying the whole world by judgment. Rather than cross-referencing to other passages that use the image of fire in different ways, we ought to examine what the “baptized in fire” text means in its own context. We ought to use the passage itself before jumping to a concordance.

The context is a call to repentance, and much of the audience promised this fire baptism was unwilling to repent. John the Baptist was immersing people in water as a sign of their repentance and preparation for the coming Kingdom of God (Matt. 3:2, 6). (Jewish people used baptism when non-Jews would convert to Judaism, but John demanded that even religious Jewish people come to God on the same terms on which Gentiles should; cf. 3:9.) John warned the Pharisees about God’s coming wrath (3:7), and that unless they bore fruit (3:8) God’s ax of judgment would cast them into the fire (3:10; cf. 12:33). Fruitless trees were worthless except for fuel. But chaff was barely even useful as fuel (it burned quickly), yet the chaff of which John spoke would be burned with “unquenchable”—eternal—“fire” (3:12).

In this context, “fire” is hellfire (3:10, 12). When John the Baptist speaks of a baptism in fire, he uses an image of judgment that follows through the whole paragraph. Remember that John’s hearers here are not repentant people (3:7). The Messiah is coming to give his audience a twofold baptism, and different members of his audience would experience different parts of it. Some may repent and receive the Spirit. The unrepentant would receive the fire!

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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 2003

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story.

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